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A Brief History of the Real-Life Invisibility Cloak

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By Chris Gayomali

The evolution of the cloaking device, from its origins in Star Trek fantasy to intricate new metamaterials.

March 27, 1958

Run Silent, Run Deep, a World War II naval drama starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, reportedly inspires Star Trek screenwriter Paul Schneider to mull a space-exploration equivalent to a submarine submerging underwater. What to do...

Dec. 15, 1966

Invisibility technology makes its Star Trek debut in episode 14, "Balance of Terror," when a Romulan Bird of Prey equipped with a cloaking device attacks the Starship Enterprise.

Sept. 27, 1968

In episode 59, "The Enterprise Incident," the technology finally gets a name: It's called a "cloaking device." The Trekkie trope inevitably becomes a sci-fi staple, appearing (and disappearing?) in everything from Dr. Who to Predator to Stargate.

June 26, 1997 

A divorced mother of a young child quietly publishes a children's book about a young orphan who receives an invisibility cloak as a Christmas present. Only 1,000 copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone are printed.

Oct. 2006

Physicists from Duke University unveil the world's first-ever invisibility cloak. (Thanks, J.K. Rowling!) The elaborate set-up was created using metamaterials, which are capable of manipulating wavelengths — like light — in ways that aren't found in nature. The catch? This "cloak" only works on microwaves and in two dimensions.

Oct. 2007

The British military tests something frightening: An invisible tank, which uses cameras and projectors to beam the surrounding landscape onto the vehicle's hull. Says one soldier who was apparently at the test trials: "This technology is incredible. If I hadn't been present I wouldn't have believed it. I looked across the fields and just saw grass and trees — but in reality I was staring down the barrel of a tank gun."

Summer 2008

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, use metamaterials to change the natural direction of visible and near-infrared light in three dimensions. Developed by Xiang Zhang, a professor at Berkeley's Nanoscope Science and Engineering Center, the light-bending concept is likened to viewing a distorted straw through a glass of water.

Summer 2008

The U.S. Army expresses interest in using metamaterials to cloak its vehicles, soldiers, and other weapons, thereby allowing them to bypass radar and sensors. Dr. Richard Hammond at the Army Research Office thinks the military is about two or three years away from manufacturing actual cloaking devices. 

May 2009

U.C. Berkeley's Zhang engineers a "carpet cloak" from nanostructured silicon that successfully hides small objects from the near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Zhang says the cloak "should be upwardly scalable," meaning that, in theory, it could work in the visible spectrum to distort objects from view.

March 2009

Across the Atlantic, military interest in cloaking devices continues to build. This time, a lecturer at the British Royal Navy College considers "the next generation of stealth ships that could be virtually invisible to the naked eye, roaming radars, and heat-seeking missiles," says Gizmag

Aug. 2010

Scientists at Tufts and Boston universities create a tiny invisibility cloak capable of manipulating terahertz waves. One problem: This new class of metamaterial was crafted by etching 10,000 gold resonators onto a 1 cm square of silk. Luxury! 

Dec. 2010

Nature reports that two scientists — one based in Singapore, one based in London — develop a more effective metamaterial from calcite crystals, which are much cheaper than, well, gold-etched silk.

Oct. 2011

Now we have video! University of Texas researchers demo a real-life invisibility cloak that uses carbon nanotubes. 

March 5, 2012

Mercedes debuts an "invisible car" as part of a promotional stunt. Okay, it's not really invisible, but the vehicle uses cameras and moving images the same way that the British tank mentioned above does.

November 2012

Researchers from Duke University create a "flawless" invisibility cloak capable of completely hiding tiny objects, in this case a 7.5 by 1 cm cylinder. So what constitutes a flawless cloak? This one channels incident light completely around an object. Voilà — pristine, perfect invisibility.

March 2013

The biggest problem with all the aforementioned cloaking devices is that they're big, bulky, and cumbersome. They need lab desks to work. But not for much longer: University of Texas, Austin researchers have created an ultra-thin material that's just 0.15 mm thick. Now, says Sebastian Anthony at ExtremeTech, "it's really only a matter of time until an actual invisibility cloak is realized."

Sources: ABC NewsU.C. BerkeleyThe Daily MailExtreme TechGizmagThe GuardianThe Huffington PostNational GeographicPrinceton UniversityScience DailyWired


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Space
More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in our solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last month, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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science
Scientists Analyze the Moods of 90,000 Songs Based on Music and Lyrics
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Based on the first few seconds of a song, the part before the vocalist starts singing, you can judge whether the lyrics are more likely to detail a night of partying or a devastating breakup. The fact that musical structures can evoke certain emotions just as strongly as words can isn't a secret. But scientists now have a better idea of which language gets paired with which chords, according to their paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers from Indiana University downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar, a site that allows users to upload the lyrics and chords from popular songs for musicians to reference. Next, they pulled data from labMT, which crowd-sources the emotional valence (positive and negative connotations) of words. They referred to the music recognition site Gracenote to determine where and when each song was produced.

Their new method for analyzing the relationship between music and lyrics confirmed long-held knowledge: that minor chords are associated with sad feelings and major chords with happy ones. Words with a negative valence, like "pain," "die," and "lost," are all more likely to fall on the minor side of the spectrum.

But outside of major chords, the researchers found that high-valence words tend to show up in a surprising place: seventh chords. These chords contain four notes at a time and can be played in both the major and minor keys. The lyrics associated with these chords are positive all around, but their mood varies slightly depending on the type of seventh. Dominant seventh chords, for example, are often paired with terms of endearment, like "baby", or "sweet." With minor seventh chords, the words "life" and "god" are overrepresented.

Using their data, the researchers also looked at how lyric and chord valence differs between genres, regions, and eras. Sixties rock ranks highest in terms of positivity while punk and metal occupy the bottom slots. As for geography, Scandinavia (think Norwegian death metal) produces the dreariest music while songs from Asia (like K-Pop) are the happiest. So if you're looking for a song to boost your mood, we suggest digging up some Asian rock music from the 1960s, and make sure it's heavy on the seventh chords.

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